Peter Roebuck’s death in South Africa last week hasn’t just robbed the contemporary game of arguably its most authoritative voice, it may revive the debate on whether cricketers are more prone to suicide than other sportspersons.
This is an unusual and chilling premise which seems to fly in the face of common perception. What makes a cricketer so different from a footballer or Formula One driver, one may ask. But documented evidence would suggest that the premise is not entirely unfounded, for suicides in cricket seem to outnumber those in any other sport several times over.
Tragic: Peter Roebuck. By AFP/HO/Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Historian David Frith’s book Silence of the Heart (first published under the title By His Own Hand in 1991) has biographies of over 100 players from all levels of the game who put an end to their own suffering—physical or mental. While such study might be considered a morbid obsession, it should nevertheless fascinate academics involved with socio-sports behaviour and those from the medical profession looking into mental illnesses.
Many prominent names feature in Frith’s remarkable book, some of them occupying high stature in the game, but there is no clear pattern of which kind of player—batsman, bowler, wicketkeeper, all-rounder, etc.—is more vulnerable, so typecasting would be misleading.
Also Read | Ayaz Memon’s earlier articles
Most suicides are located in the Victorian era with its strict social norms, or in the times of the two world wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s when livelihood was difficult. Among modern cricketers, India’s Maninder Singh, for one, was saved in the nick of time after he slit his wrists in 2007 following much-publicized domestic strife. Not so lucky was England wicketkeeper-batsman David Bairstow, who hanged himself in his house because of financial woes; and now Roebuck, whose case appears startling not only because it is the most recent, but also because he hardly ever appeared emotionally fragile.
While he had legions of fans, Roebuck had few friends, but this seemed out of personal and professional choice. He was clearly an individualist with an almost spartan view of life and more so, of cricket. Indeed, he saw life through the prism of cricket and was censorious of those who would treat it as trifling, even a mere sport.
Extraordinary skills with words combined with deep erudition to make him one of the most powerful commentators of the modern game. Clarity of thought and lucid prose made his articles compelling not just for the lay reader, but also players and administrators.
Roebuck was not necessarily always reasonable in his assessments, but he was always fiercely independent. This marked him out as different, earning him admiration even from critics. He rarely ever interviewed players, believing that this could perhaps influence his judgement.
The last time I met him was in Bangalore during the Test series against Australia in 2010 and he was fretting about an interview with Sachin Tendulkar that his newspaper wanted. Tendulkar had made a double century in the match and Roebuck mentioned that this might be a good time to meet him, but I doubt if he ever got down to doing it.
He had a particular fascination for subcontinent cricket. He believed that the rise in stature and power of Indian cricket had had a social-economic-cultural impact in the region over the past few decades and saw in this the scope for survival of the game. But he was not wholly enamoured of the wholesale commercialization that he believed the Indian cricket administration was pushing the game towards.
He had backed the Indian team completely in the Monkeygate controversy, for instance, but in the time since had become a trenchant critic of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and its constituents. He was unsparing of the International Cricket Council too for being weak-kneed and lacking the authority to govern the sport.
At his core though, Roebuck was a loner, a writer whose views of the game were known worldwide, but whose personality remained private, the subject of much speculation and often derision. But he conducted himself with such seeming strength of conviction that suicide seemed least likely to be on his mind.
Incidentally, Roebuck had written the foreword to the first edition of Frith’s book (Mike Brearley wrote it for the updated Silence of the Heart since Frith and Roebuck had fallen out by then) and in hindsight some of his words bear poignant testimony to his own inner turmoil. “Cricketers are supposed to be simple, even gung-ho, in sexual matters as in everything else. Yet cricket—and most cricketers—has its dark secrets, its skeletons,” wrote Roebuck, ending the foreword with, ”some people have predicted a gloomy end for this writer. It will not be so.’’
That it has been so is testimony to the fact that so little is known of the human mind—and to how little we really know of people we think we know.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org